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Rasmea Odeh’s Trial: Palestinian struggle is a feminist cause

This article was originally published August 2016 in Palestine in America’s second annual print issue. For the latest updates on Rasmea Odeh’s case, visit Justice4Rasmea.org or here.

Rasmea Odeh is awaiting a court decision that will determine whether she will be granted a new trial. While this decision hinges on whether Judge Gershwin Drain can determine new legal avenues to exclude the expert testimony of a world-renowned torture expert whose evidence has been fundamental to Odeh’s defense, her struggle hinges on her resilience in the fight for Palestinian liberation and immigration justice in spite of layers of injustice.

In this phase of Odeh’s trial, the judge will decide whether world-renowned torture expert Dr. Mary Fabri will be allowed to present evidence suggesting that the torture Odeh endured led her to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and subsequently suppress the recollection of her arrest when answering questions on her immigration application. Previously, a federal judge barred Fabri’s testimony, but Odeh’s attorneys will argue in January 2017 that Fabri’s findings are critical to Odeh’s defense. Despite being failed by the U.S. and Israeli justice systems, Odeh continues to fight for freedom from her oppressors, mirroring the Palestinian struggle against U.S. backed Israeli settler colonialism thousands endure every day.

Over and over, activists have said that Odeh’s case embodies the Palestinian struggle. All Palestinians are threatened by the same acts of violence she has endured, including military invasion, ethnic cleansing of villages, multiple forced displacements, and torture and sexualized violence in Israeli prison. Odeh’s history continues to pervade her current struggle with the U.S. immigration and criminal justice system as she is forced to relive her history of sexual violence through her immigration struggle and as U.S. rape culture allowed the judge to forbid her from telling her story of sexual assault in the original trial. But as we know from history, the U.S. and Israeli justice systems are doing precisely what they were designed to do—dominate, contain and control colonized people and people of color. Perhaps this is why Odeh has received support from numerous social justice movements in the U.S., revealing a growing grassroots understanding that U.S. backed Israeli colonization works hand in hand with the U.S. criminal justice and immigration systems. Recently, many activists have been exposing the dangers associated with U.S. police training in Israel and the sharing of military technologies between U.S. police and the Israeli army, Kzoo.edu reported May 2016.

Civil rights leaders like Angela Davis have viewed Odeh’s case as a “continuation of the embarrassing history of decades of suppression of social justice activists in the U.S,” according to a Nov. 2014 post on DetriotNews.com.  Immigrant-justice activists, fighting against the use of immigration policy and deportations as a political tool serving the interconnected structures of border control, neo-liberal economics, and/or the war on terror, have also supported Odeh and the Palestinian struggle.

As movements supporting Odeh and Palestinian liberation continue joining forces with movements like prison abolition, decolonization, and immigrant justice, we must remember that while Odeh’s and the Palestinians’ is indeed a struggle against settler-colonial violence, it is also a struggle against sexualized colonial violence. Sexual torture has not only been central to the way Odeh has lived and experienced Israeli settler-colonialism but it has always pervaded Israeli settler-colonialism and has been fundamental to how Israeli settler-colonialism operates. This is why an understanding of sexism and sexual violence is essential to social movements committed to supporting Odeh and Palestinian liberation. The sexualized torture she underwent at the hands of the Israelis was made possible by dominant Israeli state practices that rely upon sexism and sexual violence. Israel continues to portray Palestinian women through heteropatriarchal concepts of reproduction and motherhood and as bearers of future Palestinian generations. It is no surprise then, that this sexist and heteronormative Zionist rhetoric would treat Palestinian women as demographic threats to Israel whose bodies and reproductive capacities need to be dominated and controlled or that Zionist rhetoric justifies the domination of Israeli men over Palestinian women’s bodies by associating Palestinian women’s bodies with nature and the land.

Long before Odeh’s arrest in 1969, rape and sexual violence were fundamental to Israel’s attempts to destroy indigenous Palestinians and eliminate them from their land. From the raping and killing of Palestinian women in the massacres of 1948, throughout Israel’s more recent invasions, Jadaliyya.com reported on Nov. 2014. In Odeh’s case and systematically, the Israeli state has used sexualized violence in interrogation techniques, subjecting Palestinian women to “repeated threats of rape, sexual assaults, beating women’s breasts and genitals, fondling, and verbal sexual abuse,” according to a passage from “Global Lockdown.” And like they did in Odeh’s case, Israeli state actors use Orientalist concepts about “honor and shame” among Palestinians to justify their use of rape and sexual assault, especially during interrogations in terms of what their racist logic implies would be exceptionally effective punishment for Palestinians [as if sexual assault would not be horrifying for any community].

The Palestinian struggle, like Odeh’s case, is a struggle against U.S.-backed, heterosexist Israeli settler colonialism. Public Israeli discourses made this more clear than ever in 2014, when they promoted the rape of Palestinian women as part of the invasion of Gaza or as a method to “deter terrorism” and so did recent documentation of Israel’s sexual abuse of Palestinian minors and men in Israeli jails; the Israeli practice of forcing Palestinian women to give birth at checkpoints, risking major health complications and/or the death of their newborns; and pinkwashing (portraying Israel as gay-friendly to cover up Israeli settler-colonization and violence.)

While Palestinian feminists (like many feminists struggling against colonization) have been saying all along that settler colonialism does not exist without sexism and sexualized violence,  we continue to see liberation movements deeming activists committed to challenging sexual violence as distracting from the “larger cause” or “dividing the movement,” according to a passage from“Mapping Arab Women’s Movements.” Intentionally or unintentionally, doing so fosters an exclusionary politics whereby the experiences of people who are disproportionately targeted by heterosexism and sexual violence—women, queer and transgender people—are excluded from our analyses, our movements, and our strategies for solidarity. Yet we know that for Odeh, fighting gender injustice —practiced by the U.S. and Israel or within our families and communities—has been at the center of her fight for decolonization and racial and immigrant justice.
We also know Odeh will continue to fight because she is steadfast, because that’s what Palestinians have had to do all along, and because that is what Palestinians will continue to do.

About Nadine Naber

Nadine Naber is Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies and Global Asian Studies at the University of Illinois, Chicago. She is author of Arab America: Gender, Cultural Politics, and Activism (NYU Press, 2012). She is co-editor of the books Race and Arab Americans (Syracuse University Press, 2008); Arab and Arab American Feminisms, (Syracuse University Press, 2010); and The Color of Violence (South End Press, 2006). Her research focuses on feminist activism, racial justice, and anti-imperialism in the United States and in the Arab region and its diasporas. She currently serves as faculty director of the Arab American Cultural Center at UIC and an international fellow with the Open Society Foundation for her work with the Institute of Women's Studies at Birzeit University.

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